Friday, January 6, 2012

Organizing an Open Table: West Marches vs. Megadungeon


As I investigate this further I came back across some of the megadungeon articles I have found on other sites and the discussion therin (Best are on the Alexandrian here and here) and realized that was also a valid approach for what I want to try. So here's my internal debate, for anyone else who might be contemplating the same thing.

West Marches: Open Table, Player-Directed, Wilderness Exploration (Breadth)

Megadungeon: Open Table, mix of player and DM direction, single-site exploration (Depth - almost literally - HA!)

My goals here would be to

A) Avoid some of the scheduling hurdles we have faced as even with a fairly dedicated group twice a month has been our average and I think we can do better

B) Bring in some new players

C) Get more use out of all those books on the shelf - play more!

Now the West Marches game that originally started this fire with me stuck to some very strict rules -  1 character per player, no quests from NPC's, and no adventures in town. Some of the original D&D campaigns which inspired the megadungeon type of game did not follow this - players had multiple characters, could gain information and missions from NPC's, and could get into fights and other adventures in town. Figuring out these kinds of ground rules has a huge impact on how the game will work and I have to nail them down before I can send out any information about the game, regardless of the dungeon vs. wilderness question. Let's look at them in order:

One character per player?
I like this idea as it gives everyone a definite identity - "Jim plays a Wizard". It also aids focus - Jim is going to want to be the very best wizard he can be. However I know that over time players may want to try different types of characters and limiting them to one may decrease their interest in playing the game. In old school D&D it was easy enough to make a new character that this wouldn't even be a time issue. WIth 4E character creation is more involved, but with a character creator it really doesn;t take that long if you walk in knowing what you want to play. Plus I would probably require players to show up with a character ready to go, maybe even emailing it to me in advance. So I'm leaning towards allowing multiple characters.

No Adventures in town?
I still like this one for West Marches as there's a whole region to explore. I also really like the "adventure is OUT THERE!" philosophy in general. The town/homeland is safe - it's where you go to spend your money. Out there is not safe, and it's where you go to make your money. For a megadungeon game I can see the town being a handy option for a break from the dungeon - bar brawls and breaking and entering a rival temple or guild - that kind of thing. Right now I'm leaning towards No Adventures in Town.

NPC quest-givers?
This is a tough one as an exploration game almost demands various legends and rumors to jump start interest in the more distant regions/deeper levels. While this could be handled as "you heard it in a bar" type rumor generation, I like the idea of giving the PC"s some social options in town. If they curry favor with the high priest of Thor, he might tip them off down the road about an ancient champion of Thor who went into the dungeon in search of a certain magic item and never returned - and he was also carrying a Hammer of Thunderbolts. It's not a mission from the PC per se as he's not asking them to do anything - he's just informing them. West Marches started people off with treasure maps which gives everyone a specific goal and is a good explanation of why someone would come to the new region in the first place and then relied on player discoveries to fuel further expeditions. I like that approach too but I'm not sure I can completely ditch the handiness of the NPC legend-dump too. I am fine with skipping direct NPC quests though - I think that takes away too much of the player-driven aspect. If the players are sweet-talking or intimidating leads out of NPC's that's still player-driven in my mind and with 2E/3E/4E gives them a mechanically useful arena for their social skills.

Now for the setting considerations:

Advantages that I see here are the wider locations and environments available - forests, mountains, lakes, all with smaller to medium sized dungeons dropped in as needed. There is less chance the players will get bored with the playground. Plus you get to use the overland travel rules which opens up interesting choices about mounts, campsites, spells/rituals, and the weather. Travel and encounters take on a more three dimensional aspect too as there is no roof over your head! It also alleviates some character concerns - more with older editions than 4E, but still lingering - as all characters work well outdoors but druids and rangers and outdoorsy types in general lose some effectiveness in a constant dungeon environment.

Possible downsides: It's less predictable as a party can go anywhere compared with the limited entrance routes to a dungeon, so there is more general prep work involved. It's also easier for a party to get in way over their head as they stumble into a higher level area. In a 4E game I wonder if some of the attention paid to travel plans might detract from the enjoyment of a session as it's not often explored in this edition.

Advantages include focus - there is no question what we're going to do tonight, we're going into the dungeon! Things are also more structured as if Orcus lives on level 20 there's no way for the party to get to him directly from level 1. There will probably only be one known entrance at first, making it _really_ easy to roll out the campaign. That also means I can outline 10 levels or so, prep the first 3, and then run a few sessions before I cover more - I don't even have to decide that Orcus is on level 20 at the start! I also think it's easier to manage a set of dungeon maps game to game than it is to manage a wide-open wilderness over time.

Potential negatives that I see for an open megadungeon game include it being an old-school kind of thing which somewhat limits its appeal, and players potentially getting tired of the whole dungeon thing after a time. It's really a matter of what is standard - this way would be mostly dungeon with some unusual stuff dropped in. Wilderness is a variety of stuff with some dungeon dropped in There are also the impacts on outdoor characters mentioned above. Odly enough I think that the lack of wilderness travel might be a downside with these players, as old-schoolers tend to enjoy that stuff more than many of the new-schoolers. If you don't have to go anywhere you miss out on the main use of some of the cooler spells and magic items.

I do like the idea of a mega-dungeon campaign, but I am still leaning towards a wlderness game for 4E because I can add as much dungeon to that as I want, whereas it's hard to add in miles of forest to a dungeon, even a really big one. Some kind of Underdark wilderness map with mushroom forests, underground lakes, and magma rivers might be an option but I don't want to start there. Maybe the next one can go there. Since my last campaign was a limited geographic area I kind of like the idea of making overland travel a larger factor in this one. For the Megadungeon, there's an old school con around here later this year and that might be a better place to find some interested players rather than starting cold. Additionally I'm not sure about running two open games at the same time as they might interfere with one another scheduling-wise. I'll probably start the 4E one and see how that goes and then consider my options down the road a bit.

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